Study Finds Primary Care Shortage in Western Mass.

Sep 25, 2013

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A recent study shows there aren’t enough doctors in Massachusetts and the problem is even worse west of Springfield.

The Massachusetts Medical Society’s 2013 Physician Workforce Study takes a look at the state’s practicing doctors, patients’ access to care, and professional satisfaction and outlook. Since the annual study began 12 years ago, one of the pressing issues remains an overall physician shortage; the current status of the state’s family medicine practice is listed as critical. 80 percent of those surveyed say there is a shortage of primary care physicians across the state. That holds true for about half of those polled in the Boston region, while roughly 75 percent say there is an inadequate pool of primary care doctors west of Springfield. Society spokesman Rick Gulla says medical students are not finding primary care as appealing as other fields.

“The long work hours and the pay scale is less than what some of the other specialties are,” Gulla said. “So they’re gravitating toward other kinds of specialties where the work-life balance is better and the salaries are better.”

Michael Leary is director of media relations for Berkshire Health Systems.

“The physician shortage has been around for several years and we expect that it will be a challenge for some time to come,” said Leary.

Leary says difficulties recruiting and retaining physicians exist across the country and the Berkshires are no different.

“It can be a double-edged sword,” Leary said. “There are certainly many physicians who come out of medical schools and residences who want to practice in a very large setting like Boston, but there are also many others who are looking for the flexibility in scheduling that a smaller area can afford."

“There are more opportunities within the eastern part of the state where you have a cluster of teaching hospitals and research facilities,” Gulla said. “As you move from east to west into the rural areas, there are fewer of those kinds of opportunities.”

The study finds 53 percent of the state’s primary care physicians are dissatisfied with their current practice environment, with about a quarter saying they will move out of state if the environment does not change. This may stem from 53 percent of all physicians saying they are unhappy with the amount of time spent on administrative tasks instead of on patient care.

“If you talk to most physicians, they will tell you that they love the patient care part of their job, but the administrative tasks are becoming somewhat overwhelming,” said Gulla.

The study finds less than half of the state’s physicians feel familiar with the new regulations set forth by the Health Care Cost Containment law signed by Governor Deval Patrick last year. Leary says this along with regulations from the federal Affordable Care Act create patient access issues.

“It has greatly helped out the uninsured and the underinsured, but what this has also done is of course created access issues,” said Leary.

Gulla says understanding the new regulations is a work in progress for physicians.

“It’s still going to take some time for physicians to become knowledgeable about it and adapt to its requirements, but they’re getting there,” said Gulla.

However, the study does show that over three-quarters of the state’s physicians continue to find the medical profession rewarding. Leary says Berkshire Health Systems has enlisted hundreds of new physicians over the past decade through its Physician Recruitment Program and it plans to open a new primary care office in Lenox early next year.